“Bright Star” a charming southern fairy tale and bluegrass operetta

By Lucy Komisar

Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy, photo Nick Stokes.

If you like bluegrass and feminist stories, you will love this Steve Martin-Edie Brickell show, as I did. Carmen Cusack is a dulcet-toned charmer as the heroine.

Martin and Brickell did the story and music together; Martin wrote the book and Brickell the lyrics.

Young Billy Cane (A.J. Shively) returns from World War II to the wood farmer‘s shack in North Carolina where he grew up. He‘s a writer, or he wants to be one.

His girlfriend Margo Crawford (the very good Hannah Elless) works in a bookstore. Billy dreams of selling a story to the South‘s best literary magazine, and goes to Chapel Hill to importune the editor.

Hannah Elless as Margo Crawford and A.J. Shively as Billy Cane, photo Nick Stokes.

She is Alice Murphy (an excellent Cusack), a cynical tough hair-in-a-bun editor who is reputed to have once made Hemingway cry. She tells Billy to find a tale of pain and redemption among people he knows.

Her own story could be one, as she sings in the opening with a slight twang, “If you knew my story.” (The strings and piano are inside a wood enclosure like the shack. A chorus is at the edges.)

We shift back 22 years to the early 1920s. (Some of the back and forth time changes were a little confusing until I figured out what was happening.)

Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy and Paul Alexander Nolan as Jimmy Ray Dobbs, photo Nick Stokes.

Young Alice is in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan) who is crazy about her, and she gets pregnant. He wants to marry her, but his rich father (Michael Mulheren), who is also the mayor, wants him to wed someone with connections. And Jimmy wants to go to college.

The doctor (Michael X. Martin), who promises to keep her secret, immediately tells her bible-toting father (Stephen Lee Anderson), who in cahoots with the boy‘s dad sends her to a cabin in the woods to have the child. The doctor says he‘s done it for others. Yeah, we know all about that.

Her father takes the baby in a satchel, and on a train to deliver it to an orphanage, he throws the satchel with the baby out the window!

Meanwhile, the elder Dobbs, out of guilt, pays for an anonymous scholarship to send Alice to university. Young sweet Alice gets sophisticated. She of course is very smart and becomes a successful literary magazine editor.

Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy and the company, photo Nick Stokes.

So, it‘s a rather corny melodrama, done in the non-naturalistic style of the time and to the lively rhythms of bluegrass. The cast is routinely superb. Walter Bobbie directs with mood and charm, and it‘s all utterly believable.

Smart choreography by Josh Rhodes includes bluegrass hoe-downs and some 40s jitterbug.

“Bright Star” is also quite feminist. The fathers treat Alice as if her own wishes are irrelevant. But her mother, who has no power, doesn‘t want to sign away the child. Both Alice and Margo, the bookseller, are smart intellectual women. And you‘ll like the deus ex machina that ties everything, including the missing child and the old beau, together. A few audience tears at the end are warranted. As I said, I loved this show.

Bright Star.” Story, book and music by Steve Martin, story, lyrics and music by Edie Brickell. Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, New York City. 212-239-6200. Opened March 24, 2016, closes June 26, 2016. 6/20/16.



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